Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Barge Date: 24-04-2017 

How we found our barge

With the blog now going live, we have received some questions about how we selected the boat, people wanting pictures of the boat and some wanting comments on how the boat operates. So we will get to all of these topics in the coming weeks but this post will be about how we came to own this barge.

It all began with our desire to spend more time in Europe and particularly southern France where it is warmer. From our past domestic moves in the US, our direction has been decidedly southern. We like it warm. Snow, mud, slush, ice, freezing this, freezing that, grey skies, cold winds: we like none of this. Not that we would be getting away from all of this even by being in the south of France but other factors could perhaps overcome the negatives.

Last summer, Marianne arranged to house sit and pet sit in the city of Aix-en-Provence in the south of France. Take care of two cats, one bird, some fish, and a hedgehog should it appear in the garden (it never did). The house was typical French, with a small, charming walled garden at the back, and very near the center of Aix. We would be there for three weeks. Once there, we tried to live as if it were our house, were retired and doing what we wanted to do. We enjoyed our new lifestyle: the markets, the numerous restaurants and cafés, the pleasure of being able to walk everywhere, the daily croissants and baguettes from the local bakery. Upon returning home, we began to look at real estate in the south of France, getting an idea of prices and the types of locales we would be happy with. We wanted to be near or in a town with several restaurants, stores and bakeries. A typical French village, at least in our mind.

We spoke to one party that was selling a house built into the stonewall of a medieval village. It had some features that made it extremely appealing, though perhaps not perfect, but got us excited. Tim was ready to fly back and look at it when the owner informed us that they had received and accepted an offer. Back to square one. We continued our search and even had an agent in France looking for us.

There are a number of major downsides to purchasing a house anywhere and perhaps more so in France. Where would be a good area to live, what type of location did we want – in a small town, in a village, outside of village, very rural? How would we know that we had picked the perfect location? Having sunk a good amount of money in this “someplace”, would we be happy? What if we discovered we hated our neighbors? Or the bread from the bakery was terrible? (highly unlikely in France...).

Amazon is a great source of inexpensive used books, and Marianne ordered a few coffee table books about southern France that were available for a few dollars plus shipping. One such book was The Most Beautiful Country Towns of Provence (by Helena Attlee). While we were perusing the pages, we came upon a large photograph of a canal beside a medieval tower and a fortress. Various colorful houseboat type barges were moored on either side. Tim suddenly said: "Why not a barge?"

Back in the 70s, Marianne's parents' home was on the Meuse river with a view on many commercial barges from various countries. Marianne had grown up watching them go by and always wondered about the life of the people on board. Where did they come from and where were they headed? Tim always liked to look at these boats and secretly wanted someone to step out and say “Hey kid, come on board” and travel with us. Well, of course, no one ever did but the idea always appealed to him.

We had often talked about cruising the canals in England or France aboard a barge but when we had researched the companies offering this service, we had found the cost prohibitive. Until now we had never thought of owning a barge ourselves.

If we wanted a place in Europe and we didn't want the downsides of owning a house, living on a barge that was very transportable presented some great options for us. We would never have to worry about our neighbors; we would just move the boat. We would not have to worry about the quality of the bread at the local bakery; we would just go to the next town. If we did not like the weather we could move north or south easily. We could do this for whatever time we wanted and return to America as needed. Or tie up the barge for a week and go off to Venice. Owning 2 houses in 2 far flung areas is probably not a good idea but owning a barge at a price much less than a house and much easier to sell made this idea viable. The only big downside to owning a barge was in how they operate; we knew nothing about this but began to study the set-up of a typical barge, how it is operated and where we could buy a boat.

This is the type of research that Marianne can really jump into with both feet, but this was completely new territory for both of us. How can you compare models, motors etc. when you have absolutely zero knowledge of boats? Of course with things like this, sometimes your emotions get far ahead of where you should be and you make the wrong decision which you come to regret. But in our case with this barge we think we made the right choice.

How big a barge should we get? The one thing Marianne gathered from extensive online reading was that a barge less than 20 meters would be to our advantage for a number of regulatory reasons (higher fees for longer boats, easier to find mooring etc). We definitely wanted a barge that had some age on it; replicas are manufactured today but we had no interest in them. We wanted a barge that was in good working order and would have everything we would need on board; we did not want to furnish or repair a boat. As the saying goes with barges, it is usually the barge that picks the people, not the other way around, and in our case we believe that is what happened.

There are a lot of barges for sale and almost all of them are posted on the Internet somewhere and we became very familiar with these sites and began to compare and contrast different boats. Where there would be a number of possibilities, we would find a negative that would rule out a boat. Everything needed to line up for us before we could get excited. We were both looking at these lists hoping to discover just the right barge. One night in early August, Tim could not sleep and was up late surfing for boats in Europe and a post came up that got him pretty excited. The barge was completely renovated and looked great, it had a wheelhouse (this had become a prerequisite), was within our budget, was a type of boat (Luxemotor) that was supposed to be easy to operate, had some age (built in 1920) and, as we would discover later, had some interesting history of previous owners (that got Marianne’s interest). At that time, it was located in Belgium and of course Marianne has family there.

In the middle of the night for us, Tim wrote an email to the owners: "Is it still for sale?" By five in the morning our time, they responded and said yes. So in the morning Tim told Marianne: "I found the boat". What do you say to that? "OK. Let's go look at our boat" seemed the appropriate reply. Scrolling through the pictures online, we both got a sense of thoroughness on the part of the owners. First, there were a lot of pictures — nothing is more frustrating for a prospective buyer than a scant number of photos when you are miles away. There was also an abundance of information regarding the engine room, contents etc., not just a list of specifications. The owners were professional mariners (from the UK and Australia) who had travelled on sailboats around the world, had owned the barge for 2 years traveling with it through France and Belgium and now, after renovating the boat, were ready to move back to Australia for their next adventure. It was obvious to us right away that this boat was very much the type that we wanted and we made up a list of questions and emailed it to the owners.

Nothing is ever easy however, and in their first response, the owners told us that a Dutch couple who had already viewed the barge ("he adores the boat", we were told) was expected to make them an offer within 48 hours. So the boat was not "the boat" after all? This seemed too much like a repeat of our experience with the medieval house. We were very disappointed. Fortunately it turned out that the barge had picked us. The owners soon wrote that the Dutch couple was dithering and the boat was again available.

Cut to the chase. I (Tim) dropped what I was doing, flew to Belgium and went to visit the boat. What was I doing? I called Marianne from the airport before departing with an empty gut feeling saying this is crazy, we haven't thought this through, what am I doing going off to Belgium looking at a boat? We still have children in college and high school. How could we pull this off given these kids who still need parents close by? Could we own a boat and still keep our house which we like very much?

Crazy? Yes

I was able to locate the barge in a small village in the French speaking part of Belgium. It looked beautiful tied up at the dock. I met the owners and began to inspect the boat. Again, what the hell did I know about a barge? The scariest part was the engine room (see some pictures below). In this small, cramped, no headroom space was a large diesel engine, a central heating system for the boat, an old, one cylinder diesel powered generator, solar power panel controls and wires and pipes and thingamajigs squeezed into every corner and space. Way over my head was the first thought. What am I doing here?

These are the engine room "things" that concerned me.

But everything else was just right except for headroom in the wheelhouse. I could stand up straight, just barely, but looking forward over the wheel I could see nothing; I needed to squat a bit to look out the window. I was concerned about movement about the deck for Marianne as someone needs to be on the deck forward to work the lines going through locks. The deck looked slippery and I was wondering whether she would be comfortable moving quickly about the boat. The design of this boat did have a railing along the outside edge as well as a grip rail in-board. So one could walk and be holding on with both hands as necessary. Should I be buying a boat without Marianne seeing it before we spent some money? Did I have the judgment to make this choice by myself?

I spent some time with her family and was able to be on the phone and talk this over. I was very concerned. Not so much about the boat; if we did not like it, we could sell it. Simple as that. I was more concerned about our two youngest daughters and attempting to be away from them when we should be at home and available. I remember when we moved from New York to North Carolina, it was like we were abandoning our older kids. Aliénor was still in college in New York and Andy had just moved from Princeton to Cleveland and Case Western. We were moving 800 miles south. Was that the right thing to be doing?

Now we were in the same position, or worse. Jinglei still had two years of high school; LiQiong was just beginning college. What were we to do? In these types of cases, you develop excuses for why you should or should not do something and I am sure that we created some of the excuses for this decision. But of course we went ahead. We purchased the boat and we began planning how we would work everything out. I am in Belgium now by myself and we are still trying to work things out.

Prior to going to Belgium, we had worked out most of the details for how we would purchase the boat. Our local bank worked with us and found a way to get us some temporary money until we had sold our commercial property in town. It was under contract and looked good and in fact in the end we sold the property and were able to pay the bank back and have a bit of money left over. So while I was in Belgium, I was able to sign some documents and transfer some money to Australia for the purchase of the boat. It was ours. For better or worse.

The barge would be taken to the town of Diksmuide where I had arranged for it to be in the marina for the winter. I also arranged for someone to prepare the boat for winter so that there would be no problems. And it worked out well. See my first post below where I arrive in Belgium in early March.

Only time will tell whether this decision was wise, whether we enjoy traveling on canals, whether this type of move to Europe is better than buying a house. We studied all winter long to get ready and now we are putting the plan into play.

If you would like to think about a barge, what it might cost to purchase one, here are 2 good sites or just Google "barge for sale" and see what comes up.



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